By Mike Bangert-Drowns | December 12, 2023
The Sultan Room was packed, the air buzzing with steadily growing excitement. Beanie-clad bartenders worked diligently, providing generous servings of libations and good vibes. Halima had just performed an incredible seven-song opening set, owning the stage with confidence. Her molasses-rich voice led us through a set of eclectically-influenced songs that blended introspection, activism, and ultimately an unbridled, joyful release. As she closed out with “VEHICLE,” the crowd couldn’t help but get their feet moving to the beat, warming up for what was to come.
On stage, the techs worked their magic. Testing each mic one by one, they were engaged in the time-honored tradition of telepathic communication with the soundboard operator at the back of the room. This telepathy was likely made easier by the intimate nature of the venue, a small 200-person room oozing with the style and hospitality – fitting of a location in the heart of Bushwick. Standing in the center of the pit, just five feet from the stage, we could feel the crowd’s energy accumulating and filling the space around us.
A door to the right of the stage cracked open, and cheers and claps rippled across the room as five lab-coat-clad people strode onto the stage. They took their places behind two drum sets, a double set of keys, and a couple of guitars. There was a brief pause as eyes met and feet tapped out an excited tempo. Sensing the delicate balance of expectation and excitement, the band members remained silent. Before we knew it, the lead guitarist grabbed a violin bow and, in a very Jimmy Page-like fashion, brought the horse hair smashing down onto the steel strings of his guitar, launching us into the show.
The first song, “Snake at the Altar,” stayed true to its opening chords – raw, intense, and an absolute blast. The live effect of the violin bow on the electric guitar was enthralling, especially as we watched the bow quickly disintegrate under the intensity of the driving rhythm. As the drums kicked in, followed by crescendoing guitars and keys, we knew we were in for an epic show. The band deftly harnessed the energy in the room and brought the wave crashing down on our heads with electric guitars that tore through the crowd and compelled us to dance.
The South Hill Experiment is the brainchild of two brothers, Baird (guitar) and Gabe (keys) Acheson, who were joined live by Tim McNalley (bass), Mano Ruiz (drums), and Ryan “Buck” Raines (drums). Writing and recording from their minimalist studio on South Hill Street in Los Angeles, the brothers seek to create music that swerves away from the algorithm-pandering hit machine that seems all too prominent in the LA music scene. To do this, they let their music emerge from a series of long and spontaneous jam sessions, taking the kernels that are born from this and crafting them into songs. This process of open-ended creation allows an eclectic range of influences to take root in their music, like the aforementioned Led Zeppelin, as well as Steely Dan, Sun-Ra, and any number of Mexican boleros and Brazilian folk-jazz artists found in their parent’s vinyl crates. Their backgrounds studying music composition and ethnomusicology certainly lend themselves to this process as well.
All of this bled through wonderfully on stage. Celebrating the release of their second album SUNSTRIKES, the night was filled with exuberant bursts of music interlaced with unfurling solar explorations. Oftentimes, these songs flowed directly into one another, like in the extended section when they transitioned from “Alright, OK” to “In Another Life,” landing on a wildly satisfying “O SOFIA.”
“Alright, OK,” a sardonic ode to those who discourage passion pursuits, was almost waltz-like, reminding us to skip the shortcuts and put in the hard work. “In Another Life” picked up the pace, showcasing the rhythmic talent of the band as they found what almost felt like a funk groove while Baird’s psychedelic vocals floated overhead. The flow of the song broke several minutes in, as the guitar’s distortion cranked up and the rhythm transitioned to a much more straight-ahead rock feel, reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” at the 2:50 mark. The band shone at this moment, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy as the jam roots of their creative process surfaced. Then, with the practiced restraint of a more experienced band, they reeled things back in, pulling hard on the reins and stripping down the sonic wall to leave Gabe playing a piano loop that eased us deliciously into “O SOFIA.” We could swear we heard some Vampire Weekend influences in this tune as Baird’s vocal line strutted over the confident rhythm section.
True to their name, the band did not shy away from experimenting on stage. Initially, it took the form of a fun crowd involvement in “DREAMS!” This was followed by a unique instruction from Gabe to pull out our phones (which he then used to jokingly shame us) and go to a page on their website which directed us to the subfolder “/experiment.” We were told to hit the play button whenever we got there and crank the volume all the way up. The room quickly filled up with white noise interlaced with reverb echoes, boops and bloops, and an underlying drone which became the backdrop to their next tune, “Six Strings in the Sky.”
Their final experimentation occurred during the penultimate song, “Lianne,” an original from Baird’s solo discography. Each band member switched spots and instruments with another before beginning the song. As if that wasn’t an impressive enough display of their technical dexterity as musicians, they switched back to their original spots one by one without missing a beat.
On top of having impressive musical resumes themselves, the brothers have collaborated with a laundry list of top-notch musicians. In a clever nod to the NASA space probe and the song’s featured artist, “Parker Solar Probe” includes jazz guitarist Jeff Parker deftly laying down soothing guitar licks. “Garry’s Theme” is named after Kaushlesh “Garry” Purohit, who plays the tabla drums on the track and has collaborated with the likes of Harry Styles and Kendrick Lamar. And if that wasn’t enough name-dropping, SUNSTRIKES is laced with the horns of CARM, the solo project of CJ Camerieri who has won Grammys with Bon Iver and played on Paul Simon’s last two records as well as Yo La Tengo’s most recent release. This collaborative approach underscored a natural law in the music world: talent recognizes talent.
The South Hill Experiment truly shined when they let the songs open up, which allowed their talent and vision to emerge unfettered. These moments were evident in “DREAMS!” (when Gabe showcased his piano skills over a copious amount of cowbell that would make any diehard SNL fan proud), “Alright, OK,” and their dance-infused track, “Gabo’s Last Resort.” During the encore, we got a taste of what this sound could be as they expanded their original “Chameleons” into an extended, open-ended sonic journey.
By the end of the night, the band and the audience were drenched in sweat, and everybody was wearing huge smiles. The concert was an incredible live experience and the band’s sound was beautifully raw, perfectly unpretentious, and wholly original. For a band who is only in their first year, we simply cannot wait to see what they do next. We felt lucky to be a part of the South Hill Experiment that night and eagerly anticipate their potential third album in the coming months. This is a can’t-miss band, and we can guarantee that next time they play in New York, we’ll be there too!